Arizona Preview

The Wildcats and Sun Devils meet for the 81st time this Saturday. As usual, bowl implications will be on the line. Arizona State can clinch at least a share of the Pac-10 championship with a win while Arizona can become bowl eligible by walking away with a Territorial Cup victory.

A win by the Wildcats would also mark their first four-game win streak since the 2000 season. Arizona State has won the last two meetings and a third consecutive win would keep their BCS hopes alive.

ARIZONA WILDCATS

2007 Record: 5-6, 4-4 Pac-10
Head Coach: Mike Stoops

Last Week: The Wildcats had an extra week off to prepare for the big rivalry game after upsetting Oregon, 34-24, at home on Nov. 15.

OFFENSE

*Projected Starters

WR Terrell Turner, So.
TE Rob Gronkowski, Fr.
LT Peter Graniello, Sr.
LG Colin Baxter, RS-Fr.
C Blake Kerley, So.
RG Joe Longacre, Jr.
RT Eben Britton, So.
QB Willie Tuitama, Jr.
RB Nic Grigsby, Fr.
WR Mike Thomas, Jr.
SHB Delashaun Dean, RS-Fr.

Freshman Nic Grigsby has been an early revelation at running back. The 'Cats were in need of an identity in the backfield with the departure of Chris Henry and Grigsby 's emergence from the pack was a pleasant surprise in Tucson. The shifty-mover out of Whittier, CA has netted 682 yards on 152 carries this season. Grigsby also has three scores on the year. Former starter Chris Jennings has 148 yards and a score. Sophomore Xavier Smith is third on the depth chart with 107 yards in ten games played. The 'Cats will also utilize their running backs in the passing game.

It's been a make-over of sorts at wide receiver with a noticeably more balanced group for quarterback Willie Tuitama to spread the ball around to. Mike Thomas leads the group with seventy-three receptions and eleven touchdowns. Thomas is likely to be up for conference honors after putting together a fine junior season. The rest of the unit is on the young side with four underclassmen each adding twenty or more receptions. Delashaun Dean and Terrell Reese, both redshirt freshmen, have a combined fifty-four catches and one touchdown. Sophomore Terrell Turner is second on the team with forty-five receptions and four touchdowns. Tight ends Anthony Johnson and Rob Gronkowski are also solid targets. Johnson has more catches with thirty-three, but Gronkowski has five touchdowns and has already begun to heat up in his first season in the desert.

Featured Matchup: Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama vs. Arizona State defensive backs

The Arizona signal-caller has begun to blossom in the new spread attack that offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes brought over from Texas Tech. Tuitama is already moving his way up to the top of several school record lists. His 26 passing touchdowns this season shattered the old single-season record of 20 set back in 1966 by Marc Reed. The junior averages about 310 yards through the air. The ASU defensive backfield that will be defending Tuitama is coming off of a loss to USC, in which they surrendered 375 yards in the air.

DEFENSE

*Projected Starters

DE Louis Holmes, Sr.
DT Yaniv Barnett, Sr.
DT Lionel Dotson, Sr.
DE Jason Parker, Sr.
SLB Dane Krogstad, Sr.
MLB Ronnie Palmer, Jr.
WLB Spencer Larsen, Sr.
SS Cam Nelson, So.
FS Nate Ness, Jr.
CB Wilrey Fontenot, Sr.
CB Antoine Cason, Sr.

The senior-laden defensive line is anchored by tackle Lionel Dotson and defensive end Jason Parker. The two linemen account for a big portion of the pass rush up front with 10.5 sacks between them. Dotson and Parker each have forty-six stops as well. Yaniv Barnett has started ten of the 'Cats first eleven games at defensive tackle. He and defensive end Louis Holmes have combined for sixty-seven stops. Jonathan Turner is also likely to see some time at defensive end.

Cornerback Antoine Cason is putting the finishing touches on a very bright career in Tucson. The four-year starter was recently named a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is presented to the nation's top defensive back. Cason 's numbers this season include sixty-nine tackles, eleven pass break ups, and five interceptions. He's flanked by another four-year starter, senior Wilrey Fontenot , who has six pass break ups. Strong safety Cam Nelson is the team's fourth-leading tackler with fifty-nine stops. Nate Ness starts at free safety and has equaled Cason 's mark of five takeaways despite sharing time with Dominic Patrick. Sophomore Corey Hall is the top reserve. Arizona's pass defense ranks fourth in the conference, giving up an average of 233 passing yards per contest.

Featured Matchup: Arizona linebackers vs. Arizona State running backs

Former Gilbert Highland standout, Spencer Larsen, anchors the defense at the weak side linebacker spot. Larsen is perhaps one of the conference's most underrated defenders despite his league-best 116 tackles this season. The senior also leads the 'Cats with 12.5 tackles for a loss and has forced three fumbles. Middle linebacker Ronnie Palmer is second on the team in tackles with seventy-seven takedowns. Senior Dane Krogstad has added forty-seven stops on the other side. James Alford, a junior, will see some snaps behind Krogstad. Besides the battle in the trenches, a matchup of this group up against the Arizona State rushing attack figures to be a point of interest with both teams counting on each unit to carry some of the load. Arizona is allowing an average of 141.7 yards on the ground.

SPECIAL TEAMS

P Keenyn Crier, RS-Fr.
PK Jason Bondzio, Jr.

PR Antoine Cason, Sr.
KOR Devin Ross, So.
Mike Thomas, Jr.

Both Arizona specialists have been surprisingly solid in the wake of Nick Folk's departure. Keenyn Crier is a candidate for freshman and conference honors with a 43.4 yard average per punt. His longest of the season went for 83 yards. Over half of Crier's fifty-three punts have either been for a fair catch or placed inside the 20-yard line. Jason Bondzio has converted on twenty of his twenty-four field goal attempts this season. The junior has made at least two field goals in each of the last nine games. Bondzio boasts a strong leg and is eight of nine on attempts of 40 yards or more.

Antoine Cason has also made his mark with some special teams heroics this season. Cason is one of the conference's top punt returners with a 9.2 yard average per return. He's capable of breaking off a big play at anytime and his two punt returns for a touchdown have been a big boost for the Wildcats this year. Speed merchants Devin Ross and Mike Thomas share the kickoff return duties. Both average over 21 yards per kick return and have broken off at least one long run of 40 yards or more this year.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR ARIZONA

--Pass Rush: Teams are pinning their ears back to get after Sun Devil quarterback Rudy Carpenter this season. ASU has allowed 49 sacks in 11 games. The Sun Devils also are a bit banged up on the offensive line right now with Brandon Rodd and Richard Tuitu'u nursing ankle injuries. The Wildcats can disrupt the rhythm the Sun Devils want to establish on offense if they can continue to put more pressure on the line and Carpenter.

--Keep the defense honest: Arizona's rushing offense, which averages just 79.7 yards per game, ranks last in the Pac-10. However, when the 'Cats reach the century mark of 100 yards or more on the ground, they're 3-1 this season. The Sun Devils like to stop the run first while on defense but the Arizona offense also utilizes the screen pass, something ASU hasn't defended as well this year. A weather forecast calling for rain on Saturday may also play a role.

--More yards after catch: Last week, USC's receivers lit up the Sun Devil defense for a bunch of yards after making the catch. Six Wildcat receivers are averaging more than ten yards per reception. If the Wildcat receivers have similar success this weekend, the ASU defense may be in for another long evening.

KEYS TO VICTORY FOR ARIZONA STATE

--Pressure Tuitama: ASU hasn't been able to generate a consistent pass rush much this season, notching 23 sacks. Not that bad considering the Devils don't blitz as often as some other teams do, but, in turn, the secondary is starting to surrender more and more yards. Opposing quarterbacks have shown they can pick apart the secondary when given plenty of time to make their reads. Force Tuitama to make decisions on the fly sometimes and you're more likely to see some mistakes eventually.

--"Special" teams: The Devils have had two sub-par games here in succession. Both UCLA and USC were the beneficiaries of good field position given up by ASU's special teams. Thomas Weber struggled to get off good punts against the Trojans and was later replaced by Jonathan Johnson. The Devils can only hope that doesn't happen again this weekend with senior Antoine Cason fielding punts for the 'Cats. Cason has two punt returns for scores this year.

--Better tackling: This is a big point of emphasis against most spread attacks, and especially after a poor outing last week against the Trojans. Arizona's offense relies heavily on getting yards after the catch in the short passing game, which will put a premium on better tackling this Saturday. The defense will need to get back to swarming to the ball and better open-field tackling.

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